Mzansi’s Romeo & Juliet

2013-04-16 17:09

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He was a rebel without a cause; her grandmother never allowed her to date. Now these two young actors are setting fire to the small screen with their romantic roles in Isibaya.

It’s set to become a must-watch telenovela, full of intrigue and drama.

Isibaya, which premiered on Mzansi Magic last month, focuses on two young lovers who are caught up in a century old feud between their powerful families – the Zungus and the Ndlovus.

In the past, these families measured their wealth in cattle in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

Now, in contemporary Johannesburg, the two rival dynasties build their fortunes in the taxi industry.

Angus Gibson, creator of Isibaya, remembers travelling to the Thukela River in KwaZulu-Natal and thinking how he much he wanted to set a TV show in this magnificent valley.

‘Too few programmes on television tell rural stories, which play a big part in our lives in South Africa,’ Angus says.

So many people can relate to them.

Just look at all the taxis making their way up and down from KZN, Limpopo and Free State on weekends.’

When Mzansi Magic put out the call for proposals, Angus was keen to explore the taxi industry as a backdrop for the show.

‘It is a world full of drama, humour and humanity,’ he says.

‘A colleague once told us about growing up in a taxi yard, and she inspired us with her stories. They were filled with such positive and warm memories – which is in stark contrast to what you read in the papers about violence and feuds between rival taxi organisations.’

In the show, the two youngsters, Thandeka Zungu (played by Nomzamo Mbatha) and Sibusiso Ndlovu (played by S’dumo Mtshali) find themselves in a classic Romeo and Juliet situation.

When Thandeka is caught in a violent confrontation, Sibusiso steps up and saves her.

This is an iconic heroic moment and the start of their romantic journey. They don’t know yet that they belong to rival families and when they discover their history, they are forced to keep their affair a secret.

City of dreams

Growing up with his older (now late) brother, his twin sister and younger brother in Montclair, Durban, S’dumo says he always looked forward to Sunday evenings.

‘My mom, a nurse, would cook a delicious seven-colours meal and my dad, a school principal, would show us films,’ he recalls.

‘My dad had a great collection of movies, and some of them changed his perspective on life. The 1989 Morgan Freeman movie, Lean on Me, inspired him to become a school principal.’

After seeing how a story and performance can affect someone so profoundly, S’dumo made a decision.

‘I wanted to act so I too could move and influence people. I had a poster of Denzel Washington on my wall when I was a child at Glenmore Primary School. My teacher, Mrs Byrd, always believed in me and encouraged me to participate in the arts. I was lucky to have her to guide me because I didn’t really care about school that much,’ he says.

‘I questioned everything and challenged authority.’

After matriculating from New Forest High School, S’dumo registered at Durban University of Technology to study drama.

Here he met actor Bheki Mkhwane, who mentored and toured with him, doing industrial theatre.

He was fortunate enough to also have veteran actor Alan Pearson as a mentor.

When Alan left for Australia, S’dumo decided to move to Johannesburg – and he’s never looked back.

Winning the first season of the popular reality talent competition Class Act and scooping the big prize of a trip to New York really put him on the map.

He also had the opportunity to study at the prestigious New York Film Academy for two months.

On his return, he was cast in Inside Story, a critically acclaimed film that saw him being invited to many film festivals around the world.

Breaking free

Nomzamo (known to her friends as Zamo) says becoming a TV star was never her original plan.

‘I was brought up by my grandmother after my parents split and grew up in a very strict and sheltered environment,’ she says.

‘My grandmother didn’t want me to have friends because she said they would influence me negatively, so all I did was watch TV. I wasn’t allowed to date.’

After matriculating from Bechet High School in Durban, Zamo left for UCT to study BCom accounting.

‘It was really hard for Gogo to let go of me. We were very close, and the thought of my being so far away was too much for her.’

A year later her grandmother died.

‘That was a very hard time for me, but death taught me more about life than life itself. You know nothing until you’ve lost someone you love. The biggest lesson I learnt was to be fearless about grabbing opportunities. Nothing in this world is permanent, so you need to do what you can while you can.’

It was that same fearlessness that prompted her to enter the popular MTV Base presenter search.

Zamo made the top three and caught the eye of many casting agents.

‘I’m very new at this, and I have so much respect for this craft and the people who have been doing this for so long,’ the young actress enthuses.

‘I learn from them every day, and I’m motivated to give it my all.’

Cool crew

Isibaya executive producer Desiree Markgraaff is excited about her crème de la crème cast.

‘We started casting from the moment we imagined the story and the characters, and whenever we found someone who we felt had that “it” quality we were looking for, we were able to write with them in mind, to their strengths,’ she says.

‘We found Nomzamo early in our process, and were charmed by her combination of innocence, joyfulness and underneath, a real smartness in her reading of her character. With S’dumo it was an entirely different process, we searched for months for this role.

We thought we had someone, but it didn’t work out, and we were getting quite worried about finding someone who was authentic with regards to language, but also had all the qualities we wanted – a reluctant but obvious hero. S’dumo met with Angus and did an audition right there – and we knew immediately we had found our man.’

Looking ahead

The cheerful S’dumo is full of praise for his colleagues, particularly Pallance Dladla, who he worked with on SABC1’s Tempy Pushas.

Pallance was a runner-up in Class Act, and recently won a best supporting actor award at the Safta’s for his role in’s 4Play: Sex Tips for Girls.

‘It’s also great to work with Bheki Mkhwane again; who plays my dad, and so many other great actors,’ S’dumo says. ‘And of course I love acting with Nomzamo – even though she’s new in the game, she’s very talented.’

Zamo is equally elated.

‘Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be doing this. My first day on set was daunting! I realised that I was working with all these legends I grew up watching, like Thembi Nyandeni, who plays my aunt, and Siyabonga Twala, who plays my dad. They are so wonderful to watch. Then there’s Bheki and all the younger actors. I thought everyone would be serious, but I was pleasantly surprised to see it is such a relaxed environment.’

• Catch Isibaya on Mzansi Magic at 8.30pm Mondays to Thursdays.

What’s a telenovela?

Telenovas are different from long-running soap operas in that they have a clear beginning, middle and an end.

‘iNkaba [South Africa’s first telenovela, which was set in the fashion industry] showed us how much success this format can generate,’ says Vuyo Sokupa, head of programming at Mzansi Magic.

iNkaba consisted of 208 half-hour long episodes which were shown Mondays to Thursdays in primetime.

‘The rapid pace in which a telenovela is told draws viewers and that’s why this is a formula that works. It becomes even more appealing if the show caters to the interests and reflects the life South Africans know.’

» Get your copy of iMag in City Press on Sundays.

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